This is the second installment in a series summarizing and discussing a paper by Dr. Mark Kinzer delivered at the 2003 Hashivenu Forum. If you will read Part 1, you will find a link to the original paper. I am summarizing the paper in bite-sized chunks as a service to the readers. I know with busy lifestyles it is hard to have time to read great books and academic papers. So I try to bring it to you right here in a format that you can digest. Let me say that I invite others to chime in, including other leaders, and I would invite Dr. Kinzer to comment if he desires.
In the second subsection of Dr. Kinzer’s paper, he addresses “Oral Torah in the Pentateuch.”
One objection to the idea of Oral Torah is that scripture is sufficient. The Reformers coined a term, sola scriptura. Yet Dr. Kinzer notes this has to do with soteriology (how we are saved), and is not a claim that the Bible replaces all writing as the only necessary source. Torah is not concerned with salvation, but a way of life. Does the Torah contain all the practical details necessary to live a Torah life?
Dr. Kinzer cites Michael Fishbane, who notes that gaps and ambiguities in the Torah text require interpretation. For example, the command to abstain from work on Shabbat does not specify what counts as work. The command to afflict oneself on Yom Kippur does not define what that means. The Leviticus 11 list of edible and inedible birds is incomplete and gives no principle (as it does for land and water animals), so which birds are forbidden?
At other times Torah requires interpretation and correlation of different texts. One text says to give the tithe to the Levites (Num 18:21-32), another to share it at a feast at the sanctuary (Deut 12:22-29), and yet another to donate it to Levites and the poor within the towns (Deut 14:27-29). How are female slaves to be treated in light of the apparently varied instructions of Exodus 21:7 and Deuteronomy 15:17? Is Passover to be kept in the home or at the sanctuary in light of Exodus 12:1-13 and Deuteronomy 16:2?
These are issues that require interpretation. Should the community have different answers so that each man does what is right in his own eyes? Or should there be one practice for the community so that all are together?
Dr. Kinzer then gives an amazing and helpful example. He shows that within the Bible itself a process of interpretation and standardization can sometimes be seen. His example is in 2 Chronicles 35:13, which speaks about how to cook the Passover lamb. Exodus 12:9 says it is to be roasted in fire while Deuteronomy 16:7 uses a word usually interpreted as boiling. 2 Chronicles 35:13 seems to reflect the interpretation of the Post-Exilic (after the Babylonian exile) community. It uses a similar word to Deuteronomy 16:7, but which more clearly means cook with fire and not boil.
There had to be guidance from the priests and leaders of Israel on how to keep festivals and obey the laws of Torah. The Torah simply does not attempt to fill in all details. Dr. Kinzer again cites Michael Fishbane as saying that the written Torah no doubt represents the core of a larger system of Israelite teaching, most of which was passed on orally. Fishbane is careful not to identify this oral teaching with the rabbinic Oral Law, but the parallel does show that some sort of Oral Torah was expected.
When Jethro advises Moses to appoint 70 elders, the process of Oral Torah is carried forward. Now the practice of the Israelites is regulated by a body of 70 elders. This system of priests and judges who issue rulings on cases and legal matters is codified in Deuteronomy 16 and 17.
Dr. Kinzer examines closely the wording of Deuteronomy 16:18-20 and 17:8-13. He notes there were both local courts and a central court for Israel (much like our local courts and Supreme Court in the U.S.). The central court will rule on issues too difficult for the local court, including decisions about “the appropriate law” (sometimes translated “the legal right”). People are not free to ignore the ruling of the central court, but it is binding. In essence, the central court of Israel makes laws that are as binding as biblical commands. Dr. Kinzer notes from 2 Chronicles 19 that such a court did function in Israelite history in the biblical period.
Interestingly, Dr. Kinzer briefly discusses five cases where Torah laws are made at the request of people who come to Moses for answers. I will simply list them if you wish to study them: Leviticus 24:10-23 – blasphemy by the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman; Numbers 9:6-14 – Pesach Sheni; Numbers 15:32-36 – gathering wood on Shabbat; Numbers 27 & 36 – the daughters of Zelophehad and the inheritance rights of women.
From all of this, Dr. Kinzer concludes that:
1. Gaps, ambiguities, and problems of correlation in the Torah indicate a need for a supplemental system of teaching in Israel.
2. The text assumes an office such as that which Moses held, as Torah teacher to all Israel.
3. The Torah-teaching role of Moses was delegated to a central court for the whole nation.
4. The authority of the Mosaic office was from God but affirmed by the people (i.e., judges rise up from the people and the people affirm their authority — God does not appoint the judges in all generations and at all times, but usually leaves this to the people).
This is a lot to chew on. For many these ideas will be revolutionary or controversial. Would God leave part of the task of teaching a way of life to the people? Why wouldn’t God just say it all? Let me comment in a way that may be helpful to Christians. The exact same thing happens in Christendom, just without a central authority. Christian leaders decide how to pray, how to worship, and what the standard should be in various ethical situations. These norms differ from church to church and denomination to denomination. The idea of people filling in the practical steps of God’s commands is nothing unfamiliar to Christianity. What is different is the idea of a central authority, an idea that does not sit well in an individualistic age. Yet, with a central authority defining the major steps of practice, the community will have much greater unity.
Next time, Part 3. I do hope to hear some feedback from you. I don’t promise to respond to everything, but I appreciate the insights and perspectives you add.